The Weight of an Extraordinary Novel

Words: Chris Booth
Image: Sourced

Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a book that definitely has some gravity to it. In other words, it’s a book that is very easy to put down. Despite the fact that this novel falls into my favourite genre of magical realism, I didn’t find it as weightless as I hoped it would be – to me it had sounded like a much more interesting book that I wouldn’t be able to put down. Indeed, if you look at the synopsis of the novel, it seems like it’s going to be an intriguing, ‘magical’ filled story. However, there is just something about it that makes it miss the mark of ‘truly outstanding’.

Let me give you a brief overview: The novel is split between two characters, each one filling in the alternative chapters, and each one seemingly unconnected as they move through their lives in New York City during the beginning of the twentieth century. Now this is where it gets interesting – the female ‘lead’, Coralie Sardie, is an attraction in her father’s Museum of Extraordinary Things, while the male ‘lead’, Ezekiel ‘Eddie’ Cohen, is a Russian photographer of graphic crime scenes. And this is exactly what drew me into the novel into the first place – the idea of a turn of the century ‘freak show’ museum and a professional photographer who still had to put his head under a black cloth to take a photo (back when photography was barely considered an art form). Therefore, this plot setting seems to be a hipster’s wet dream.

Coralie, who appears as a mermaid in her father’s ‘freak’ show, alongside such attractions as Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and the one-hundred year old turtle, stumbles upon Eddie the photographer. Without him seeing her, she spies on him through the forest next to an icy cold river where she has been ‘practising’ her swimming. Not having officially met, this device sets up a connection between the two, something that is explored throughout the novel. Eddie, whose experiences are very different from Coralie’s, finds himself searching for a young woman who has been lost after a tragic fire in a textile factory.

Without spoiling the plot, this novel creates curious connections between these two characters through the clever use of magical realism, dark (yet beautiful) imagery, and brilliant storytelling. However, there are a number of issues that, as stated above, makes this novel miss the mark of ‘truly amazing’. This is primarily due to the lengthy chapters and intricate descriptions, as well as the intense political and societal comments it makes on early twentieth century America. Sounds heavy, right? Exactly. The novel is split up not only between the two characters, but the chapters themselves contain lengthy first-person anecdotes before switching to lengthy third-person story-line. And although this is a very logical structure, it just seems a little too much, and instead of enticing the reader to keep reading, it allows the reader to keep putting the book down (even if it’s after a lengthy read).

Don’t get me wrong, I still really liked the book, and I encourage you to push through and read it, but it felt like it took an age to get through. I would often get into it, but then fall right back out of it, only picking it up occasionally when I needed something to read. This may be a novel that many people may enjoy, but it could have been cut down quite a lot and done away with many of the things that made me thought ‘get to the point already’.